Tuesday 31 May 2011

On Waltheof

Crowland Abbey

Today is the anniversary of the execution of Waltheof, Earl of Huntingdon and Northumbria, the most high-profile English victim of the turbulent decades which followed the Norman Conquest. In 1066 Waltheof was already an earl but he does not seem to have fought at Hastings (he may have been too young), and after the Conquest he made peace with William; he rebelled three years later, made peace again and married the king's niece, but rebelled again five years after that, and finally got himself executed in 1076 for being a traitor. Which he was, in Norman eyes. But one man's traitor is another man's martyred freedom-fighter, and so Waltheof, despite manifesting no especially saintly qualities in life, was honoured as a saint in death - at least at the abbey where he was buried, Crowland in Lincolnshire (Crowland the courteous, as the rhyme has it).  This is the account of his execution:

Earl Waltheof, being accused of treason by Judith his wife, was kept for a year in prison at Winchester, where he confessed his sins to priests, weeping in a spirit of humility and with a contrite heart and reciting the psalter which in childhood he had learned to sing every day, turning his whole mind towards the worship of the Lord God.

But then the Normans, who were his enemies and coveted his estates and privileges, sought the judgement of his death in the king’s court, and he was sentenced to be executed on a hill outside the city of Winchester on 31st May, early in the morning: his head was cut off and his body thrown into a ditch and covered with green turf. At this execution a miracle took place worthy of being remembered: when on bended knee, raising up his eyes and hands to heaven, he began to say the Lord’s Prayer, but was not able to complete it because his voice was interrupted by tears. After his head was cut off a clear and audible voice completed it in the hearing of all who were present, saying, ‘But deliver us from evil, Amen’.

After 15 days, his wife Judith requested the permission of the king that Ulfketel abbot of Crowland should have the body of the holy earl, still intact and bloody as on the day that the man of God was killed, carried to Crowland; and the chapter of the monks reverently buried him, and upon his tomb, according to some, Judith laid a silken cloth after some time had passed, which by divine power was pulled away, as if by a violent wind.
Waltheof was the only Englishman executed under William the Conqueror (though plenty were killed in battle).  No wonder the monks of Crowland were prepared to call him a martyr!

Monday 30 May 2011

An Eastertide Carol: God's mighty gladness

It's still Eastertide for a little while longer, so here's an Easter carol. This is the kind of Easter carol which is more appropriate when Easter falls in March than when it comes at the very end of April, because we certainly don't have snowdrifts and sleeping buds around here any more (although we did have large quantities of spring rain today). However, this is still beautiful. I found it in the Oxford Book of Carols and due to that volume's remarkable reticence about naming people, I can't actually tell you who wrote it - someone with the initials N. S. T., is all I know (although the internet suggests it may be Neville Talbot).  I can't tell if this ignorance is a massive research fail on my part or a genuine mystery, but perhaps someone will stumble over this who is able to explain who NST could be. Whoever he/she is, they also translated this lovely Christmas carol, so they deserve some credit...

Easter Carol

Cheer up, friends and neighbors,
Now it's Easter tide;
Stop from endless labours,
Worries put aside:
Men should rise from sadness,
Evil, folly, strife,
When God's mighty gladness
Brings the earth to life.

Out from snowdrifts chilly,
Roused from drowsy hours,
Bluebell wakes, and lily;
God calls up the flowers!
Into life he raises
All the sleeping buds;
Meadows weave his praises,
And the spangled woods.

All his truth and beauty,
All his righteousness,
Are our joy and duty,
Bearing his impress:
Look! The earth waits breathless
After Winter's strife:
Easter shows man deathless,
Spring leads death to life.

Ours the more and less is;
But, changeless all the days,
God revives and blesses,
Like the sunlight rays.
'All mankind is risen,'
The Easter bells do ring,
While from out their prison
Creep the flowers of Spring.

Sunday 29 May 2011

Athens: Moonlight on the temples slept

Some person of very good taste chose the following hymn for Radio 4's 'Sunday Worship' programme this morning, which greatly pleased me; and so here it is. Like this wonderful carol, it was written by J. M. Neale in 1853 to fit a tune in the medieval music compilation 'Piae Cantiones' (the tune is named 'Scribere prosposui', and may or may not be the same as this tune, I'm not quite sure.).

It's inspired by the account of St Paul's visit to Athens in the Acts of the Apostles 17:

While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate with him. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.

Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we would like to know what they mean.” (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)

Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.

“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. 'For in him we live and move and have our being.’As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’

“Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”

When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” At that, Paul left the Council. Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.

A pretty great topic for a hymn, I think you'll agree. The tune in The Oxford Book of Carols is harmonised by Geoffrey Shaw, and for my money is considerably more sane than that medieval tune; sadly I can't find it online, but for the next week you will be able to listen to it on iplayer, at 11:38 mins in.

1. 'Twas about the dead of night,
And Athens lay in slumber;
Moonlight on the temples slept
And touch'd the rocks with umber;
And the Court of Mars were met
In grave and rev'rend number.
Evermore and evermore,
Christians, sing Alleluia.

2. Met were they to hear and judge
The teaching of a stranger;
O'er the ocean he had come
Through want, and toil, and danger;
And he worshipp'd for his God
One cradled in a manger.
Evermore and evermore,
Christians, sing Alleluia.

3. While he spake against their gods,
And temples' vain erection,
Patiently they gave him ear,
And granted him protection;
'Till with bolder voice and mien
He preach'd the Resurrection.
Evermore and evermore,
Christians, sing Alleluia.

4. Some they scoff'd, and some they spake
Of blasphemy and treason;
Some replied with laughter loud,
And some replied with reason;
Others put it off until
A more convenient season.
Evermore and evermore,
Christians, sing Alleluia.

5. Athens heard and scorn'd it then,
Now Europe hath received it:
Wise men mock'd and jeer'd it once,
Now children have believed it;
This, good Christians, was the day
That gloriously achieved it.
Evermore and evermore,
Christians, sing Alleluia.

Saturday 28 May 2011

A Hymn for the Discouraged

I've glanced over this hymn several times in the past and never got past the first two verses, which for some reason don't much appeal to me; but verses 3 onwards have a simple plaintive honesty that is rather moving, especially on a 'dark room' kind of day.

Lord, it belongs not to my care
Whether I die or live;
To love and serve Thee is my share,
And this Thy grace must give.

If life be long, I will be glad,
That I may long obey;
If short, yet why should I be sad
To welcome endless day?

Christ leads me through no darker rooms
Than He went through before;
He that unto God’s kingdom comes
Must enter by this door.

Come, Lord, when grace hath made me meet
Thy blessèd face to see;
For if Thy work on earth be sweet
What will Thy glory be!

Then I shall end my sad complaints
And weary sinful days,
And join with the triumphant saints
That sing my Savior’s praise.

My knowledge of that life is small,
The eye of faith is dim;
But ’tis enough that Christ knows all,
And I shall be with Him.

Friday 27 May 2011

Pictures of Canterbury Cathedral

Because I was thinking about Canterbury, here are some more-or-less randomly-chosen pictures of my favourite cathedral.

This is its most famous part, the site of Thomas Becket's shrine. This was the destination of many thousands of medieval travellers, including but not limited to Chaucer's pilgrims, St Eysteinn, and an Icelander named Hrafn Sveinbjarnarson who presented the tusk of a narwahl at Thomas' shrine to thank the saint for a good catch. (Part of me really hopes they still have a narwahl tusk in a cupboard somewhere at Canterbury). The shrine was, of course, destroyed at the Reformation, so the site is marked by the candle in the bottom-left corner.

From the nave...


The ceiling of the nave.

Sunlight on some saints.

Medieval glass.

Reflections of medieval glass.

Link For the Oxford theme of this blog - here's the founder of All Souls College, Archbishop Henry Chicele, holding the (very recognisable!) frontage of his college. It's from his gorgeously-coloured tomb:

More medieval glass:

Medieval wall-painting, traces thereof:

This is from St Anselm's Chapel, looking into the body of the cathedral:

Some archangels:



And to the outside - this is the ruins of the medieval abbey of Christ Church, where the monks lived who served the cathedral. Thanks, Henry VIII!


And to finish here's, well, the photographer herself, in St Anselm's chapel:

For more, see Canterbury by Candlelight and The Stained Glass of Canterbury.

Some Canterbury Saints and the Venerable Bede

The days between May 25-28 are variously dedicated in the church's calendar to four of my favourite medieval people: Bede, St Augustine of Canterbury, King Ethelbert of Kent, and his wife Bertha. As the latter three are traditionally held to be responsible for the establishment of the English church, and the first is our best source for how it happened, it seems appropriate to post Bede's account of Augustine's arrival.

We begin in 597, when Augustine was sent from Rome by Gregory the Great to evangelise the English people.

(The text is from here, ch.25-6):

Augustine, thus strengthened by the confirmation of the blessed Father Gregory, returned to the work of the word of God, with the servants of Christ, and arrived in Britain. The powerful Ethelbert was at that time king of Kent; he had extended his dominions as far as the great river Humber, by which the Southern Saxons are divided from the Northern.

On the east of Kent is the large Isle of Thanet containing according to the English way of reckoning, 600 families, divided from the other land by the river Wantsum, which is about three furlongs over, and fordable only in two places, for both ends of it run into the sea. In this island landed the servant of our Lord, Augustine, and his companions, being, as is reported, nearly forty men.

They had, by order of the blessed Pope Gregory, taken interpreters of the nation of the Franks, and sending to Ethelbert, signified that they were come from Rome, and brought a joyful message, which most undoubtedly assured to all that took advantage of it everlasting joys in heaven and a kingdom that would never end with the living and true God.

The king having heard this, ordered them to stay in that island where they had landed, and that they should be furnished with all necessaries, till he should consider what to do with them. For he had before heard of the Christian religion, having a Christian wife of the royal family of the Franks, called Bertha; whom he had received from her parents, upon condition that she should be permitted to practice her religion with the Bishop Luidhard, who was sent with her to preserve her faith.

Some days after, the king came into the island, and sitting in the open air, ordered Augustine and his companions to be brought into his presence. For he had taken precaution that they should not come to him in any house, lest, according to an ancient superstition, if they practiced any magical arts, they might impose upon him, and so get the better of him. But they came furnished with Divine, not with magic virtue, bearing a silver cross for their banner, and the image of our Lord and Saviour painted on a board; and singing the litany, they offered up their prayers to the Lord for the eternal salvation both of themselves and of those to whom they were come.

When he had sat down, pursuant to the king's commands, and preached to him and his attendants there present, the word of life, the king answered thus: ­ "Your words and promises are very fair, but as they are new to us, and of uncertain import, I cannot approve of them so far as to forsake that which I have so long followed with the whole English nation. But because you are come from far into my kingdom, and, as I conceive, are desirous to impart to us those things which you believe to be true, and most beneficial, we will not molest you, but give you favourable entertainment, and take care to supply you with your necessary sustenance; nor do we forbid you to preach and gain as many as you can to your religion."

Accordingly he permitted them to reside in the city of Canterbury, which was the metropolis of all his dominions, and, pursuant to his promise, besides allowing them sustenance, did not refuse them liberty to preach. It is reported that, as they drew near to the city, after their manner, with the holy cross, and the image of our sovereign Lord and King, Jesus Christ, they, in concert, sung this litany: "We beseech Thee, O Lord, in all Thy mercy, that thy anger and wrath be turned away from this city, and from the holy house, because we have sinned. Hallelujah."


As soon as they entered the dwelling­-place assigned them they began to imitate the course of life practiced in the primitive church; applying themselves to frequent prayer, watching and fasting; preaching the word of life to as many as they could; despising all worldly things, as not belonging to them; receiving only their necessary food from those they taught; living themselves in all respects conformably to what they prescribed to others, and being always disposed to suffer any adversity, and even to die for that truth which they preached. In short, several believed and were baptized, admiring the simplicity of their innocent life, and the sweetness of their heavenly doctrine.

There was on the east side of the city a church dedicated to the honour of St. Martin, built whilst the Romans were still in the island, wherein the queen, who, as has been said before, was a Christian, used to pray. In this they first began to meet, to sing, to pray, to say mass, to preach, and to baptize, till the king, being converted to the faith, allowed them to preach openly, and build or repair churches in all places.

When he, among the rest, induced by the unspotted life of these holy men, and their delightful promises, which, by many miracles, they proved to be most certain, believed and was baptized, greater numbers began daily to flock together to hear the word, and, forsaking their heathen rites, to associate themselves, by believing, to the unity of the church of Christ. Their conversion the king so far encouraged, as that he compelled none to embrace Christianity, but only showed more affection to the believers, as to his fellow­-citizens in the heavenly kingdom.

For he had learned from his instructors and leaders to salvation, that the service of Christ ought to be voluntary, not by compulsion. Nor was it long before he gave his preachers a settled residence in his metropolis of Canterbury, with such possessions of different kinds as were necessary for their subsistence.


And there they have been ever since... 1500 years and counting.

Pictures from Minster-in-Thanet, Fritton, Norwich and Canterbury (of course).

Thursday 26 May 2011

Maiden and Mother: A Medieval Marian Lyric

This is a thirteenth-century Annunciation lyric from the manuscript Cambridge, Trinity College B.14.39. It shares some lines with the more famous I sing of a maiden (which may be partly based on this poem); like 'I sing of a maiden', with its 'dew in April which falleth on the spray', the first verse of this poem makes it particularly appropriate for spring, when the Annunciation is traditionally commemorated. The Feast of the Annunciation was often known as 'Our Lady Day in Lent', to distinguish it from other days associated with the Virgin.

Nu this fules singet and maket hure blisse,
And that gres up thringet and leved the ris;
Of on ic wille singen that is makeles:
The king of halle kinges to moder he hire ches.

Heo his wituten sunne and wituten hore,
Icumen of kinges cunne of Gesses more;
The Loverd of monkinne of hire was yboren
To bringen us hut of sunne, elles wue weren forlore.

Gabriel hire grette and saide hire, "Ave!
Marie, ful of grace, ure Lover be uit thee;
The frut of thire wombe ibleset mot id be.
Thu sal go with chide, for sout ic suget thee."

And thare gretinke that angle havede ibrout,
He gon to bithenchen and meinde hire thout.
He saide to then angle, "Hu may tiden this?
Of monnes ymone nout y nout iuis."

Mayden heo was uid childe and maiden her biforen
And maiden ar sothent hire chid was iboren;
Maiden and moder nas never non wimon boten he:
Wel mitte he berigge of Godes Sune be.

Iblessed beo that suete chid and the moder ec
And the suete broste that hire sone sec;
Ihered ibe the time that such chid uas iboren,
That lesed al of pine that aree was forlore.

A translation:

Now the birds sing and make their bliss,
And the grass thrusts up and leafed is the ris; [the branch has grown leafy]
Of one I will sing that is matchless:
The king of all kings as mother he her chose.

She is without sin and without a stain
Come of king's kin, of Jesse's stem;
The Lord of mankind of her was born
To bring us out of sin, else we were forlorn. [i.e. lost]

Gabriel her greeted and said to her, "Ave!
Mary, full of grace, our Lord be with thee;
The fruit of thy womb, blessed may it be.
Thou shalt be with child, in truth I say to thee."

And of that greeting the angel had brought,
She began to think and ponder in her thought.
She said to the angel, "How may this be?
Of man's touch know I nothing, indeed."

Maiden she was with child and maiden was before
And maiden ever since that her child was born;
Maiden and mother was never woman but she:
Well might she bearer of God's Son be.

Blessed be that sweet child and the mother also
And the sweet breast that her son sucked,
Praised be the time that such a child was born,
Who released all from pain that ever were forlorn.

The lower two pictures are from the church at Fordwich, Kent.

Wednesday 25 May 2011

Assorted Stained Glass

Just so that the top post on the blog isn't a picture of a skull and musings on mortality, here are some random pictures of stained glass. Because it's pretty.

Framlingham, Suffolk

Heckingham, Norfolk

Heckingham, Norfolk

The chapel of St Edward the Confessor, Canterbury Cathedral

Bramfield, Suffolk

Ash, Kent

St Swithun's, Bath

West Stourmouth, Kent

Tuesday 24 May 2011

On Transience, II: Earth upon earth

Talland, Cornwall

This is a haunting poem from the 15th century, a time when the 'Dance of Death' and other memento mori themes were becoming increasingly popular. I almost feel I should apologise for its gruesome nature, but as poetry, it's incredibly effective, mostly because of the rhyme scheme (a single rhyme per stanza) and the obsessive repetition of 'earth', which gives it a kind of spooky incantational sound.

There are multiple versions of this poem, variations on a theme usually keeping to the same distinctive rhyme scheme (which gives you a clue as to how central the rhyme is to the overall effect). Fascinatingly, the last three stanzas appear in a medieval wall-painting in the Guild Chapel in Stratford-upon-Avon; and given that context, it's hard not to think of Hamlet:

Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth into dust; the dust is earth; of earth we make loam; and why of that loam, whereto he was converted, might they not stop a beer-barrel?
Imperious Caesar, dead and turn'd to clay,
Might stop a hole to keep the wind away:
O, that that earth, which kept the world in awe,
Should patch a wall to expel the winter flaw!

Here's the medieval poem, with a modernised version below (of the many available versions, this is the text of Lincoln, Lincoln Cathedral Library MS. 91). Essentially, to read it you have to understand every first earth as 'man (who is dust)' and every second earth as either 'earth' (as in, 'the world') or 'dust', in the sense of physical matter; but the point of the poem is that they are the same thing.

Memento, homo, quod sinis es
Et in cenerem reverteris.

Erthe oute of erthe is wondirly wroghte,
Erthe has geten one erthe a dignite of noghte,
Erthe appon erthe hase sett alle his thoghte
How that erthe upon erthe may be heghe broghte.

Erthe upon erthe wolde be a kinge
Bot how erthe to erthe sall, thinkes he no thinge
When erthe bredes erthe and his rentes home bringe
Thane shall erthe of erthe have full harde parting.

Erthe upon erthe winnes castells and towrres
Thane sayse erthe unto erthe, "This es al ourres"
When erthe upon erthe has bigged up his bourres
Thane shall erthe for erthe suffere sharpe scourres.

Erthe gos upon erthe as molde upon molde
He that gose upon erthe, gleterande as golde,
Like as erthe never more go to erthe scholde
And yitt schall erthe unto erthe ga rathere than he wolde

Now why that erthe luffes erthe, wondere me thinke
Or why erthe for erthe sholde other swete or swinke
For when erthe appon erthe has broughte within brinke
Thane shall erthe of erthe have a foul stinke.

Mors solvit omnia.

Remember, man, that you are dust
And to dust you shall return.

Earth out of earth is wondrously wrought,
Earth has on earth a dignity of naught,
Earth upon earth has set all his thought
How that earth upon earth may be high brought.

Earth upon earth would be a king
But how earth to earth shall [come], thinks he not a thing;
When earth breeds earth and his rents home bring
Then shall earth of earth have full hard parting.

Earth upon earth wins castles and towers
Then says earth unto earth, "This is all ours!"
When earth upon earth has built up his bowers
Then shall earth for earth suffer sharp showers. [attacks]

Earth goes upon earth as mould upon mould
He goes upon earth, glittering like gold,
As if earth never more return to earth should;
And yet shall earth unto earth go faster than he would.

Now why that earth loves earth, wonder me think [it is a wonder to me]
Or why earth for earth should either sweat or swink [labour]
For when earth upon earth is brought within brink [within bounds, i.e. in the grave]
Then shall earth of earth have a foul stink.

Death dissolves all things.

A four-line version of this poem, in BL Harley 2253, f.59v